Winners-Losers: Kaepernick train rolls to Super Bowl
After coming up just short a year ago, the 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl. The Falcons, meanwhile, have yet to get over the hump and their season is now over.
|Colin Kaepernick is headed to the Super Bowl, Matt Ryan is headed home … again. (Getty Images)|
Jim Harbaugh -- It's hard to ignore the sideline antics, but there's no denying that Harbaugh knows how to get the most out of his players. After missing the playoffs every year since 2002, the 49ers have been in back-to-back NFC Championship Games and now they're headed to the Super Bowl. More perspective: Harbaugh has 24 regular-season wins in two years. The 49ers had 26 wins in the previous four seasons before Harbaugh arrived.
Colin Kaepernick -- Midway through the season, there were skeptics who thought Alex Smith should keep his job after he missed a start recovering from a concussion. Instead, coach Jim Harbaugh turned the offense over to second-year, second-rounder Colin Kaepernick, and the 49ers' starting quarterback went from "game manager" to "one of the most dynamic players in the league." Kaepernick didn't come close to matching his 181 rushing yards from last week -- he rushed just twice for 21 yards Sunday -- but he completed 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards, with 11 of those completions going for a first down or a touchdown.
Vernon Davis -- The 49ers tight end averaged just one reception a game over the final six weeks of the regular season but he more than made up for it in Sunday's NFC Championship Game. Davis led San Francisco in receiving with five catches for 106 yards, including a second-quarter touchdown that cut the Falcons' early lead to 17-14.
Tony Gonzalez -- Big day for tight ends. The 16-year vet is as good at 36 as he was at 24. Unfortunately for the Falcons, he said last week he's 97 percent certain he'll retire after the season. Gonzalez had eight catches for 78 yards in the championship game, including a third-quarter touchdown.
Julio Jones -- Imagine how good Jones would've played if he didn't have two broken legs. Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff drew a lot of criticism when he traded up in the first round of the 2011 draft to get Jones as a complement to Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, but Jones has been integral to the Falcons' success this season. He finishes his second NFL season with a 10-catch, 158-yard effort that included two touchdowns.
Dunta Robinson -- After the Falcons squandered a 17-point first-half lead, Robinson almost single-handedly saved Atlanta's season when he stripped Michael Crabtree at the goal line early in the fourth quarter to keep the 49ers from taking their first lead of the game. Turns out, it was only temporary.
Eddie DeBartolo Jr. He said this before the game.
Matt Ryan -- Is Ryan the reason the Falcons lost? No, of course not. But he's nipping at Philip Rivers' heels as the best quarterback not to make it to a Super Bowl. He was the third overall pick in 2008, and has played like a top-tier QB, but this might be the best team he's ever apart of. And fair or not, the offseason will be about what Ryan could've done differently to get the Falcons over the hump. Against the 49ers, he was 30 of 42 for 396 yards, with three TDs and one INT. It didn't help that Ryan appeared to injure his left shoulder on Atlanta's penultimate series.
Mike Smith -- There was actually talk that Smith's job would've been in jeopardy had the Falcons let the Seahawks comeback from a 20-0 deficit a week ago. Atlanta held on to win it on a Matt Bryant 49-yard field goal … only to do it all over again this Sunday. Atlanta led by 17 in the second quarter, 10 at the half and by four with 8:23 to go. More fun facts: since 2001, playoff teams were 1-27 when trailing by 17 in the first half. Now they're 2-27. The previous biggest comeback in postseason play? The Falcons overcame a 13-point deficit against the Vikings back in 1998.
Falcons defense -- Good news: After struggling to stop the read option against Cam Newton and the Panthers, and Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, the Falcons' D did a swell job of containing Kaepernick Sunday. Unfortunately, that left tight end Vernon Davis free to run through the secondary and he had a huge game. Incidentally, Wilson noted during the NFL Network's pregame show that Seattle tight end Zach Miller was his go-to receiver a week ago because the Falcons often left him uncovered.
David Akers -- Yes, he underwent two hernia surgeries last February, but at this stage of the proceedings, there's no room for error -- or excuses. Which means the 49ers have to be able to rely on Akers. He honked a 38-yarder midway through the third quarter that would've tied the score, 24-24, and this comes after he missed at least one field goal in five games late in the regular season (and a total of 13 misses during the season).
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